mind, matter, meaning and information

objectivity and the human point of view

Spontaneously to feel, think and act as if a given object is also a subject—projecting the concept of subjecthood—is perfectly valid—but a purely intellectual decision to attribute consciousness is meaningless. We have a natural tendency to empathise with other creatures—especially those of our own species—and the difference between my attitudes to my friends, and to the rocks in my garden, needs no rationalisation. The fact that this distinction is so important to us does not make it objective.

The intellect alone cannot handle certain kinds of phenomena. Objectivity is gained only at a price, and in some cases what is lost is the point of the exercise. Take lightning: a description made from a single perception will mention a very brief, very bright flash of light. After a few more perceptions a correlation with a loud, rumbling sound will come in, previously unnoticed because they don't always come together. Then the typical weather conditions might be mentioned; eventually we get scientific theories, and a description in terms of static electricity, gas ionisation, and the rest of it.

There is no denying the usefulness of such knowledge, but it can be achieved only by eliminating the characteristics of a particular point of view, getting away from the experience of lightning. Consciousness is intrinsically associated with a particular viewpoint—in fact it could be said to be nothing more or less than a point of view. Conscious experience is precisely what objectivity must transcend. We have to forget the individual viewpoint, to make a description that may be comprehended by anyone—even, once we enter the realms of science, someone with very different senses, like an intelligent bat.

Lightning has an objective character that may be found by integrating the data from many observations. Experience has no such character. Take away mere appearance from a physical phenomenon and you are left with the reality; take away appearance from appearance and you are left with nothing. Objectivity means ignoring what it is like, and even that it is like anything, to be something.

To concentrate on achieving a complete, and completely accurate, picture of an object, means to forgo the use of our “in-built” abilities and propensities. Objectivity requires all relevant factors to be made explicit, or conscious, while some aspects of our behaviour are necessarily unconscious. Your attitudes towards people in general and in particular depend on your projection of selfhood upon them. Analyse that fact, become conscious of the concept, and relationships, values, and meaning vanish like snow from a stone wall, to leave mere animated matter. Objectivity, contrary to received wisdom, is not simply realism—certainly not if we consider people, as such, and any of their concerns, to be real.

Survival and success in everyday life depend on a dynamic compromise between subjectivity and objectivity. We have to be practical, which often means analysing things very carefully to discover the reality behind the appearance—but we agree, if unconsciously, that some things are not for analysis. This is the most basic social contract: we view each other as more than just a part of the environment. All social interactions are built upon that foundation; it enables cooperative, instead of just individual, practicality.

The valid applications of maximal objectivity—as opposed to the situations where for practical purposes we need to be relatively objective—are quite few and far between. To be maximally objective is to leave the realm of ordinary day-to-day experience.


Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .